“Huh?”, I asked.
“I said they’re not my parents. I’m adopted. I spent most of my life in group homes and orphanages with no family. When I was eleven years old this couple came and took me in as a foster kid. They had one kid, but couldn’t have any more so they went shopping for one. They said they wanted an older brother for their kid. Really they wanted a distraction and a babysitter. Eventually some stuff happened there and I was returned to the group home. I didn’t care, it’s not like they were family. Every day I was reminded that I was second fiddle. Their kid got everything he wanted, I got ignored.”
I gulped. A revelation, for sure, but not really the answer I was looking for. “Ok”, I said. “So you’re adopted. What’s that got to do with stealing?”
He gave me a bitter look. “As I said, all of my life I was bounced around between orphanages and group homes. I didn’t make any friends because every one of those places was only temporary. When I got bounced back to that group home I had barely anything at all, and whatever I did get was often taken from me by the bigger kids. I learned that if I wanted something I had to take it. It was easy. Just walk into a store like you own the place, grab what you want, and leave. Don’t try to be sneaky, that’ll just draw attention to yourself. Just walk in, grab what you want, and walk out like it’s your God-given right. It happens so fast they don’t have the time to react.”
“Quiet. You wanted the truth, right? Well, here it is. Eventually, when you hit the same store so many times, they start to expect you and they set traps. That’s how I started to get caught. The first time I was caught they gave me a lecture. Didn’t even call the orphanage, just barred me from the store. I was too young to have charges laid anyway. Since I didn’t really get into trouble I just kept right on stealing from different stores. I got caught a few more times, but again nothing happened. Eventually, one time I got caught, but this time I was over 12 so I got charged, and I got probation. The orphanage sent me to a ‘halfway house’. It’s kind of like a group home but for ‘troubled kids’. I wasn’t troubled though, I just liked free stuff. Eventually this other couple adopted me out of the group home. Of course I kept on stealing, but I became more careful not to get caught. I was getting bolder though. One time I was lurking around an empty cash register at the K-Mart hoping for a chance to steal some smokes, when I decided to start playing with the cash register. To my surprise, the cash drawer opened! I could hardly believe my luck – I grabbed a fistful of 20’s and ran. I got outside and counted the money. Almost $300! And it was so easy! I stayed away from that store for a while and returned to my usual stuff: Smokes, pop, chips, etc. Eventually I missed the thrill of that cash, though, so I tried my luck back at the K-Mart. This time, though, I got caught. Cops came and everything. I was charged again, and convicted again. I had just finished my probation from the first time. They gave me more probation. My adopted parents didn’t know what to do with me, so they didn’t really do anything. I became a little more cautious, staying away from the cash registers, but I kept right on stealing. I didn’t even feel bad about it. It was the only way for me to get anything in life. My adopted parents were beside themselves, trying to think of ways to stop me from stealing. They decided to try giving me everything I could want. For the first little while it worked. They bought me toys, candy, games, even cigarettes, and for the time being I didn’t feel like stealing. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off, though, and I was soon forgotten. It was like I didn’t exist anymore, unless I was needed for something, usually to babysit their biological kid. I soon tired of this, so I started spending all of my time at the mall. Not the Town Center mall here, but Downsview. Downsview has a lot more stores. It didn’t take long for me to fall back into old habits. I started stealing again. I was soon stealing just for the sake of stealing. You’d be surprised how easy it is! I actually started getting bolder, taking more risks, just for the thrill. Soon enough I got caught again, but this time it was different. I was still on probation from the last time. The store manager knew that I had been stealing from his store, so he wanted to make an example of me. Charges were laid, I went to court, and I was found guilty. Somehow I still got a slap on the wrist but this time there was more punishment: community service. The worst of it was from my adopted parents though. They basically made it clear that I could be returned to the group home just as easily as I was taken from it.”
“Yeah, so you can imagine how much I cared about them. I was back to stealing before I even finished the community service. At first I was cautious, but soon I became bolder again. One time I went into the grocery store, loaded a shopping cart up with pop, chips, cookies, etc, and walked right out of the store with it. Nobody batted an eye! After that I started going in there all the time to do that. I’d take the shopping cart full of food over to the old horse racing track and share it with a bunch of older kids that used to hang out in the old barns. I got bolder and bolder, and those kids that I thought were friends got more and more demanding. They were insisting that I steal enough cigarettes for all of them! So I went into the store, grabbed a cart, loaded it up with the usual, and then, as I was pushing it through an empty checkout lane I hopped the counter, grabbed a couple of cartons of smokes, and tossed them into the cart. I hopped back over the counter and continued pushing the cart out of the store. As soon as I walked out of the main door and into the parking lot I was grabbed by the arm and forcibly spun around. I was now facing an angry security guard, and behind him was a store manager. I didn’t even think about it: I cocked my leg back and let fly, kicking that guard in the nuts so hard that I’m sure he’s a girl now. He let go and I ran without even looking where I was going. I ran right into a store customer, a really big guy who had seen the whole thing. He grabbed me and dragged me back to the store entrance, where a few more store employees were waiting and the guard was rolling around in pain. I was dragged back into the store, into the office, and the cops were called. I was charged with theft under $5000 and assault. The cops drove me home, and I was treated to the silent treatment by my ‘parents’. For weeks they wouldn’t even talk to me. They didn’t even ask me to babysit their kid anymore. I was OK with it at first, but then it started to bother me. It was like I was erased. They tolerated my presence, but that was it. Finally the court date came. I was found guilty of both charges. Because I was still on probation I was also charged and convicted with breach of probation. I was sentenced to two years at Waterville. The judge asked if I needed time to get ready to go to ‘jail’. My ‘father’ whispered something to my public attorney, and he stood up and said “His family requested that he goes now, your honour”. That was it, I was sent in a police van to Waterville that afternoon.”
I was now starting to feel bad for him and had to remind myself that I was mad at him, and that he made his own bed. I was wondering about one thing though.
“But you weren’t gone for two years. Amber told Ian that you were only gone for a bit longer than a year.”
“Yeah, well, that’s because they’re overcrowded. If you get two years you won’t even do a year if you’re good. You have to really screw up to be forced to do your whole sentence. I was sure to be good, at least as far as they knew, so I was sent home early.”
“Ok, I’ve heard of that happening before. So your adopted parents took you back in?”
“At first they weren’t going to. My councillor met with them and talked them into taking me back in. They finally agreed but said they’d only give me one more chance. If I screw up again I’m kicked out.”
“But you’re still stealing!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, well, old habits die hard. I just can’t help myself. But I don’t really care. When I got back from Waterville my ‘parents’ were even colder than normal. Instead of ignoring me, though, they now do nothing but criticize me. They pick at every little thing I do or don’t do. I can tell they don’t want me there, and I don’t really want to be there.”
“That’s crazy! If you get caught again they’ll send you back to Waterville!”
“Is that so bad? I got treated better there than I do at home. If I do get caught they’ll send me back to finish my two years and probably a little more. I’ll be over 16 when I get out. When I’m 16 the government will take me on as a ward and give me a place to live. They’ll pay for my food and everything. I’ll be free of my ‘parents’ forever.”
I thought about this. “But that’s terrible. It might be better than your home, but it’s still jail. What about school? What about friends?”
“Ha! I don’t have any friends.”
I suddenly felt guilty.
He continued. “As for school, the province will send me to trade school. For free. And they’ll pay my way the whole time.”
I just sat there, not saying a word. I didn’t even know what to say, so I turned my gaze back to the lake and just stared out over it. The sun had gone down and the sky was starting to darken. The water was perfectly calm except for the ripples of fish jumping. Frogs were croaking, crickets chirping. It was a beautiful late summer evening, but my mind was on Colin. What a horrible life, and I had not even known! To think that he saw jail as an improvement! It started dawning on me how little I actually knew about him, and I was feeling guilty for not even asking.
“You’re wrong”, I said.
I turned to look at him again. “You’re wrong. About not having any friends.”
“But I thought...”
“I’m your friend. I was mad that you didn’t tell me about your past, but now I can see why you didn’t. But I still want to be your friend. But...” I trailed off.
He repeated, “But...”
“But no more stealing.”
“I mean it”, I interrupted. “No more stealing. I want to be your friend, but I can’t be friends with a thief.”
“But you liked the cigarettes and stuff.”
“I didn’t know where you were getting them. I don’t want your cigarettes. You don’t have to buy my friendship. But I do have to be able to trust you. I don’t want to always be wondering what you’re stealing, and I don’t want to always be wondering when you’re going to get caught and when you’re going to go away.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t want to lose another friend.”
“Don’t you fucking dare laugh at me. I am dead serious. If you’re going to go away, go away now. I could handle it if you do. But don’t you dare laugh. I’ve already lost my best friend and most of my other friends don’t bother with me anymore. I don’t want to lose anymore. So that’s my offer, take it or leave it. I will be your friend and forget about any of this, any of your past, but only if you stop stealing.”
He was now looking intently at me. “Ok.”
“I mean it, Colin. No more fucking stealing. I don’t even care whether you get caught or not. If I see or hear of you stealing we’re done.”
He thought for a few minutes.
“Promise me”, I said. “If you can’t promise me, that’s it.”
His lip quivered. “I promise.”